Liberty head football coach Hugh Freeze met with the media on Monday following his team’s win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Flames are now No. 22 in both the Coaches and AP Top 25 polls on the heels of the program’s first ever 7-0 start to a season. This Saturday, the Flames play host to Western Carolina with kickoff scheduled for noon on ESPN3. Here’s everything Freeze had to say in this week’s press conference, beginning with his opening statement.
“It was a magical weekend. One of those that you will put in your memory bank forever. I’ve had numerous friends and family and others ask me, how does this rate compared to all the wins you would consider to be your the underdog, you probably don’t have the best roster, and all that stuff, how would this one rank? I would arguably say it’s probably number one. We’ve won some games we probably weren’t supposed to, but probably not to this differential when you’re playing a team that I consider to be one of the top 25 teams in the country over the last two decades. You look at the recruiting rankings and all those things that build up your rosters. I’ve said you don’t have to beat them ten times, you just have to beat them once.”
“It was a magical Saturday for all of our Liberty family, our players. Just thrilled, and I didn’t think we played our best after watching the film. I know we didn’t. I haven’t slept much. You’re so jacked up after a game like that, you don’t sleep on Saturday. Then Sunday night I started immediately, my head started spinning about I have to get them back grounded. We better prepare the same way. I’m thinking about this week ahead all last night, but I’ll take it. I assure you that. It was so much fun. Crazy ending, a lot of different twists and turns and strategies. I love that part of the game. I love evaluating what my decisions were and what I should do different and learn from. Next time will I do it differently? Just magical.”
“Coach Fuente and them do a great job. They have a great scheme. Offensively, they are very difficult to defend. It was a huge win for us. I told somebody, I’m afraid our people will expect us to win every ACC game we ever play now. That’s not realistic I don’t think. We will keep taking them as they come, but we’ve got to get back and prepare for a…you talk about 2020 being strange, we’re playing our 8th football game and facing an opponent that hasn’t had a game. Now, that’s strange and uncomfortable. Not quite sure what to prepare for.”
WHAT WAS THE TEAM MEETING ABOUT AND HOW DO YOU GET YOUR TEAM FOCUSED ON WESTERN CAROLINA?
“The team meeting was this morning. Shared with them the truth of Saturday. We celebrated that truth of victory. Also showed them the rankings. Said, take a picture of it, save it in your computer or wherever you save it. One day you can blow it up and put it in your office in your home. Memories are hard to come by. We remember all the difficult things for sure, but I’ve got several pictures I’m going to blow up from Saturday. I want to tell my grandkids about it. These players are going to want to say, let me tell you about this day we went to Blacksburg and won this crazy game. You need to tell the people you love about those stories and those memories. Keep it, but then we wadded it up and threw it in the trash. Said this one has the same value as last week’s in the win-loss column. There’s no difference. It doesn’t count any more, any less, and we must prepare. I do think one strength our staff has is consistency in our approach. They won’t see any difference in my approach and our staff will follow that. Hopefully, the leadership of the team that I meet with in our Leadership Council they will echo that when we’re not around and it will show in our preparation. We’ve already begun that. We introduced our new theme this week. I taught the lesson that this morning. I planned those back in the summer and we’ve been blessed that they are right on point for each week that we have.”
ARE YOU ABLE TO SHARE WHAT THAT THEME IS FOR THIS WEEK?
DID YOU KNOW THAT VIRGINIA TECH CALLED THE TIMEOUT?
“Yeah. I was watching and he was standing right beside the official. I knew that was coming. Then the whistle is blowing. I didn’t know at the time because I was watching over there, but when I watch the film the whistle’s blowing as Alex is taking his first step and that really throws him off and two of our linemen stood up. It had a direct effect on everything that was going on in that moment. I did hear it and knew it was blown.”
WHAT WAS YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH ALEX AFTER THE GAME?
“We just hugged and told him I was really proud of him. Just swing at that freely every time from now on. If I knew he was going to swing that freely at the end of that thing a lot earlier and kicked it from the five yard line. Next time when I evaluate my strategy, now I’m going to have confidence that he’s going to put it through. So, probably going to play that last 1:50 differently.”
MALIK AFTER THE GAME WAS NOT BOASTFUL. HOW IMPORTANT IS THAT FOR ONE OF YOUR LEADERS TO BE LIKE THAT?
“I couldn’t be more pleased in that quality that he has. It’s rare, but he truly is a humble kid. Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship. He was thankful for that opportunity just chose not to go there to play the position they wanted him to play. He gives respect to everybody. He’s his hardest critic. Talked to him this morning, he’s, ‘Man, I didn’t really play that good.’ I said, ‘we don’t win that game without you and we need to learn some things from it. Both are true. You are our guy,’ and we certainly don’t win that game without him. You would never know that he’s having probably the great year that he’s having by listening to him talk. I love that quality about him. I hope he never changes.”
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT HE CAN PUT HIS FUMBLES IN THE PAST AND MOVE FORWARD?
“It’s huge. It’s kind of a staple of our program. We have a philosophy of don’t blink and you play the next play. That includes even when you’re getting criticized for not playing well. I beat myself up sometimes like gosh-doggit that was an awful series. I didn’t eat any clock up. It was awful calls. I got greedy, but then I snap back and play the next play. I’m the same way with him. Take care of the dadgum ball, now let’s get ready to go again. He knows that about me, and I’m glad that he can put it behind him too because you don’t win that game without him.”
HOW INTEGRAL WAS IT FOR YOU THAT YOU SAW THE TIMEOUT HAPPENED AND BEING CONFIDENT TO CALL ANOTHER KICK?
“I honestly didn’t know they stopped until I watched the film. I knew the whistle had blown, but I didn’t know that two of our linemen just stood up and didn’t block anybody. So, I didn’t really know that. You have these instincts sometimes as a coach, it was kind of chaotic, luckily the timeout gave me time to talk to our kids. I just had this instinct of man I think I can steal this first down here and still have time to kick it a little closer. That’s what we decided to do and it worked out.”
AS A HUMAN BEING, DO YOU EMPATHIZE WITH HOW VT AND FUENTE FELT AT THE END?
“Yes, I’ve been on the other side of this coin too where something happens and it’s gut-wrenching. I never want to be defined by the scoreboard and neither does any coach that I know, but reality is we are. We’re judged by that not by everyone but some administrations judge it on that and they have to. We all get that when we sign up for this, but there’s so much more to it in building a program, managing kids, making sure they are better when they leave your program. Justin does that. Those Saturdays like that when it doesn’t go your way it’s gut-wrenching. I’ve had them and will have some more. You hate that for their kids and for their coaching staff, but at the same time in that moment you don’t hate it when you reflect on it. He was very gracious in the post game. I think he’s one of the good ones in the profession.”
HOW DO YOU GUIDE YOUR TEAM AS YOU NOW HAVE THE TARGET ON YOUR BACK?
“Just don’t change. Don’t change anything. Remember why we’re having the success we are. Fortunately we’ve been blessed not to be altered too much by COVID. It has affected us, but it hasn’t really altered us to the point where we felt like we couldn’t compete. Hopefully that continues. Obviously, injuries, we’ve had some at receiver, but some other places we’ve remained fairly healthy. That’s been important to us, and then our approach. We can’t control those first two, but we can control our approach to it. Do not change our approach at all, and hopefully the leadership of the team understands that.”
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE THAT YOUR TEAM WOULD BE COMPETITIVE IN THE 4TH QUARTER?
“Halftime. I tell everybody what I really felt going in was we can’t stop them and that I thought that we could move the ball, if we didn’t turn it over, and score some points. That’s really what I thought. Felt like I needed to shorten the game. After the first quarter, I felt really good. After the first quarter, our defense was on the field nine plays. Everything was good. Obviously, the ending of the second quarter, I thought when our defense held them to a field goal, I thought that was huge. I told my daughters going into the locker room that we were going to win it. They just looked at me and said are you serious? I said, yeah, I think we’re going to win it. I felt pretty good at halftime.”
WHEN DID YOU NOTICE THAT BARBIR WAS ABLE TO COMPETE FOR THE STARTING JOB?
“Well, it’s kind of ironic. Stricker got hurt with the same injury that Alex had back in the spring. We didn’t have an option. He was really the only guy we had. We started looking among our student body to find out if we had another guy that could at least be a backup in case we lose Alex too. He was really forced into it, but once he was forced into it he’s done a consistent enough job to earn it. Thankful for his journey and I know he’s experiencing the high side of it now. Hopefully that will give him great confidence.”
HOW FORTUNATE IS LU THAT A FORMER P5 KICKER HAPPENS TO BE ON CAMPUS?
“That’s another blessing, for sure. Thankful we have him.”
HOW MUCH IS YOUR CONFIDENCE RUBBING OFF ON THESE PLAYERS?
“That’s a tough one to answer. I’ve never met a coach worth anything that wasn’t confident. I think it ought to rub off on your kids. I think the experiences we’ve all had mean something to our kids too. So, they may feel like this dude is crazy enough to believe that we can win it. Maybe I should believe them also. Last week’s theme was incredible, climb the cliff and have six seconds of insane courage. I wish I would have named it five seconds now because that was on the clock when we kicked it. I was close. It was six seconds. They just never quit flinching. Let’s play as hard as we can and then see what the scoreboard says. Fortunately, it worked out for us that day. The confidence is a big part of our program and hopefully we can continue to play with confidence.”
HOW MUCH ARE THESE WINS HELPING IN RECRUITING?
“There’s no question it helps. On Sunday’s I always Zoom with recruits. In my Zoom yesterday with them everyone was bright smiles and feeling good. Truthfully, we’ve kind of slowed down a little bit because we’ve got a good set of commitments, but you start thinking about us winning and starting to compete at the level we want to compete with. Recruiting stuff is changing with the unknown of the one time transfer, the transfer portal, all of those things that we’re kind of in a holding pattern right now a little bit. Because we do think the Liberty brand is getting better and better nationally. It’s definitely helping.”
WHAT IS CARL POOLE’S STATUS?
“Anthony (Butler) had to play too many snaps Saturday, for sure. I think Carl, I believe, was back at workouts today so hopefully we won’t have to worry about that. I think he will be back this week ready to go.”
WHAT’S THE PREPARATION BEEN LIKE FOR WESTERN CAROLINA?
“It’s just beginning. We started it last night, but it is unknown. They have a brand new defensive coordinator, Andy McCollum, who is a good friend of mine, but it’s been a long time since he’s coordinated. He was a head coach at Middle (Tennessee), then a linebackers coach, coordinator at Baylor, then a head coach at Middle, then linebacker coach at Georgia Tech under several different coordinators. So, I’m really not sure what he’s going to do defensively. He wasn’t there last year, so it’s very difficult. We’ve got two sets of thoughts going on in our preparation offensively. Defensively, we have a little more to go on. We think they will be similar, it’s the same coordinator or the head coach may call it, I’m not sure. They have a little better idea, but it’s still uncomfortable to know you’re playing a team that hasn’t played a game yet and they’ve had eight weeks or however many weeks they’ve practiced to get ready for this game. It’s a little uncomfortable.”
FIU, NORTH ALABAMA WERE SIMILAR SITUATIONS, DOES THAT HELP YOUR TEAM?
“Yeah, I think all of our experiences always help us, good or bad. I don’t think there will be anymore film study because you’re kind of shooting in the dark at some things. Defense will probably study more than we will offensively. We will be more concerned with if they play us three-down what do we want to do, if they play four-down what do we want to do, if they play man, if they play one-high, if they play two-high, let’s just make sure we have a plan for all of those things and then we will have to adjust when we get to the field Saturday.”
DO YOU HAVE GREATER EMPHASIS ON WHAT YOU GUYS DO THIS WEEK?
“To me this whole week is about us. Obviously you prepare and you do different things based on your opponent, but let’s make it more about us and making sure that we are prepared for Saturday and whatever that brings in their schemes or adjustments that we have to make. I’m not a coach who believes that your kids are going to be emotionally the same from every Saturday. I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. When you have unrealistic expectations, you typically have frustrations. That’s not one that I have expect to have every Saturday. I expect them to be emotionally ready by Saturday. Will they be this Saturday at the same emotional peak? Probably not, but I’ve never seen that win or lose games. I have seen their execution and preparation win and lose games. That’s what our whole focus will be about with us.”
DO YOU WANT TO PROMOTE MALIK FOR A HEISMAN CANDIDATE?
“I”m not a big promoter for stuff like that. I don’t really understand how that works. I’m a realist. I know that’s a very difficult task from a non Power Five program. I don’t know even how many have done that. That’s just reality. Is he deserving of the accolades he’s getting? Yes. Does he read them and change him? I sure hope not. I asked him three times last week when he made mistakes in practice, ‘Are you reading your press clippings?’ He got a kick out of that. I don’t think we have to worry about him staying humble and continuing to work. As far as the Heisman talk stuff, I don’t really understand how all that works, but I think that’s a long shot even though I think he’s deserving of everything that comes his way, for sure.”